Apparently it’s big in the US, where Barack Obama is a big fan, and naturally after London elected their answer to ‘Change we can believe in’ in May, the Conservatives are equally enamoured with the nudge phenomenon too. (It’s interesting to notice how much Obama and the Conservatives have in common: it’s as if the entire political spectrum in the US were situated to the right of our own… because it is.)
Where some political philosophies may emphasise people’s rights and freedoms, others their responsibilities, and others the state’s responsibilities to serve and protect them, ‘nudge’ politics is based on the idea that people are basically extremely stupid, and therefore need to be told what to do.
Were such a philosophy espoused by the left, it would no doubt be ridiculed as the nanny state gone mad, but of course this is the new, cuddly and most critically electable Conservatives and it’s therefore perfectly acceptable to the right for them to come out with this idea.
We’re all idiots
The nudge idea is actually quite a reasonable one, as far as it goes. In its propensity to continue to ruin its planet, its self-destructive urge to binge-drink, over-eat and overindulge with drugs, the human race is often its own worst enemy. So unless you take the extreme libertarian view that everyone should be left to get on with it, whatever the consequences (even if those consequences could ultimately be, for instance, the deaths of millions in climate change-caused disasters), giving people a nudge in the right direction is not a bad idea.
The idea is to provide people with the state-determined ‘best’ option as the default choice, while still allowing people to choose other paths if they disagree. So you enrol someone for a pension but give them the chance to cancel it if they don’t want to pay into it; perhaps you even reverse the current organ donation situation, requiring anyone who doesn’t want to donate organs to carry a card to make their wishes clear.
So where can we see this approach in action already? Where are there millions of people, most of them not really understanding what they’re doing, making uninformed choices which can have bad consequences for thousands of others, all of which can be mitigated by sensibly chosen default options? There’s a 90%+ chance you’re looking at it now: Microsoft Windows.
Curtains for Windows?
The vast majority of the world’s computers run Windows, and certainly almost anyone without the first clue about computers will be using it, probably without even realising they’re doing so. (That’s not to suggest only the stupid use Windows: I have first, second and third clues about computers and still choose to use it.)
For a long time, ease of use, to encourage computer take-up, trumped security. Don’t know what this webpage alert about needing to install the rootkit.exe plugin means? Don’t worry, just hit Enter and the page will work fine.
Users’ freedom to do as they pleased in the short term outweighed the benefits to everyone in the long term. (Don’t understand this pension scheme terms and conditions document? Just throw it away and forget about it for now, then.)
But it soon became clear, halfway through Windows XP’s life, that this approach simply wasn’t good enough any more in the always-connected internet age. Suddenly those auto-installing ‘plugins’ were turning into huge internet-wide ‘botnets’ of unknowing computer users’ systems, working together to send spam, attack web sites and generally make internet users’ lives a misery.
Improvements nudge into view
Microsoft responded with Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), which was effectively a significant new release of the operating system but was shipped as a free service pack to try to get it out to as many of the existing millions of XP machines as possible.
This release was an early example of some pretty tough ‘nudging’. Vast swathes of default settings had been changed to favour security over ease of use. The firewall was turned on by default, important system patches awaiting installation nagged users into submission, and the browser didn’t even prompt you prominently to install plugins (encouraging casual ‘Yes’-clicking to rid yourself of the nuisance of a pop-up dialog box), instead notifying you through an unobtrusive strip to be sought out only if you were wondering why something obviously wasn’t working properly on the page.
A nudge too far?
The trouble is, even that didn’t appear to be enough. I’m one of those people that gets called on to sort out parental acquaintances’ PCs when they go wrong, and I’ve seen even the most well-patched XP SP2 machines crippled by all kinds of malware that’s tricked its way onto people’s PCs. I once found someone who had actually paid to ‘renew’ a piece of fake anti-virus software that had tricked its way onto his computer – past his existing anti-virus software.
So Windows Vista ups the security and nudging to a whole new level, with administrative elevation prompts often described as ‘intrusive’ in reviews. These pop up whenever you try, or anything else on your system tries, to do something which requires administrative privileges: installing software, changing system settings, generally doing anything which could feasibly result in your computer being turned into a lean, mean, spamming machine, or worse.
Mrs. Pushing the boundary (the wife formerly known as Mrs. Stop Boris) got a bit fed up with these prompts, and Vista’s other beefed-up security credentials and went back to XP. It’s not an uncommon tale (albeit mixed in with the usual teething problems caused by hardware companies keener to sell you new hardware than to spend a few hours writing a new driver for their old hardware), and it illustrates the fine balance to be found between nudging people enough and pushing them too far.
Those of us who know what we’re doing with computers can of course disable all the nudging, although I rather like knowing when something wants admin rights so I haven’t. Governmental nudging would be unlikely to come with a universal off-switch in the same way.
Even at the individual decision level, how would Cameron strike the balance mentioned above successfully? It needs to be easy enough to opt out of, say, a pension plan for those people who genuinely understand the options and don’t think that’s the best one for them, yet hard enough that uninformed people focused on the short term don’t spot a tick-box which to them appears to say “Don’t give away 5% of my money each month after all”.
And as with so much of Project Cameron, it could appear that he is seeking an impossible compromise between fundamentally different approaches, like free-market economics and environmentalism, or hugging hoodies but throwing away the key if they’re carrying a knife.
Is this the party David Davis has apparently decided he would like, one which defends liberties and freedoms (apart from freedom from the death penalty and homophobia, of course ;) ), or is it instead another party which will want to tell everyone what to do for the greater good? Are the two reconcilable in a single manifesto? If and when some concrete policies start appearing from the Conservatives, perhaps we’ll find out.